Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory

LAST WORDS ON A NEARLY MADE IT THEATRE: MEMOIR OF A SURVIVOR -

John Romeril

A major crime in entertainment is taking too few risks. Another is to take too many. Hell is deciding which is which, then comes the moment when the audience does the deciding for you, and you realise your fate is not and maybe never was, your own. Not so bad when you think about it- because who the fuck are you to be in charge of something as precious as a life!

.1.

The APG excelled at taking risks, but risk-management was not our forte. Born 1970 (or a little before, if the truth be known), by early 1981 the risk-return ratio had so moved against us that closing the Pram Factory's doors became our only viable option. When the turnstiles stop clicking at the required rate, theatres die. And ours did.

'Who dares wins' is the motto of the SAS, so akin to Mao's 'dare to struggle, dare to win' one wonders which came first. We dared, and lost, but the mentality of the APG owed more to Gough Whitlam than to the discipline of a Mao or the Special Armed Services.

For eleven plus years we conducted a crash-through or crash corporate strategy, then crashed. Entering voluntary liquidation we reached an arrangement with our creditors which saw the administrators sell off our remaining assets. Our lighting system was not amongst them. In those final months, as our theatres lay dark and unattended, the last of a decade-long series of thefts occurred, and our lighting board, our dimmers, and a swathe of lamps disappeared, presumably falling off the back of a truck at some still unknown destination. The light on the hill hadn't just gone out - it had been pinched.

The freehold (we leased the premises) passed to a developer, and in time the closest thing in most of our lives to a sacred site, the much loved Pram Factory, became a Safeways supermarket. And that, for all intents and purposes, was that.

But what had 'that' been?

In Darwinian terms, had (as some supposed) the unfit unveiled the unnecessary? Did we, the disciples of folly, possessed by an individual and collective mania, bring a doomed and socially meretricious project to an inevitable and inglorious conclusion? Or had close to five hundred people, for over a decade, in the realm of the theatre, laboured at one of the most profound and sustained experiments in cultural engineering ever attempted in post-World War Two Australia?

Was this a valiant, or a criminal waste of time and talent? If the latter, where does culpability lie?

.2.

The bottom line is I saw some of the best and brightest of my generation go down for the count, and it was not a pretty sight. Most got up from the canvas to slug it out another day, another way, but not everyone did. And something brave and beautiful perished in the fall. Better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all rings like a worthy aphorism. What scars does it heal? No chaser I know combats the irksome taste of failure.

Calling it, for simplicity's sake, the creation of an Australian Playhouse, and supposing the project had merit - what flaws in our game made the APG at the Pram Factory an ideal we could establish but not sustain? We had the ‘I’ word, intelligence. We had agency, will, skills, energy, youth, drive. The advent of subsidy via the Australia Council gave us some room to move, breathing space enough to establish our credentials and take a bite at the pie-chart called market share. What foolishness on our part put paid to the venture? What strategic and tactical errors did we commit? Was a fatal hubris part of the equation and were none of us in fact, the heroes we perceived ourselves to be? Or was it just one more case of the adequately talented inadequately capitalised?

The scoreboard proclaims a battle lost but was the war winnable? Did I, did we, make optimum use of our potential, read right or mis-read the potential of the moment? To indict oneself and one's comrades, even retrospectively, is no easy thing.

A time-honoured, though scarcely honourable out, is to blame the epoch and indict society instead. The APG was hot to trot - the culture, alas, was not! Crunched, by the cringe! But while it may console some to conceive of Australia then as a land unfit for heroes such as us; or to portray Melbourne in the 1970s as an Argentinian backwater where stifling originality and flair, and lopping artist-citizens off at the knees, was a sport practised by a backward-looking power elite; one has to ponder how much blood since, and whose next, will stain that elite's jaws for the troubling aspect of this analysis is how little things have changed to make them better than that now.

Yes, there were powerful figures who could have helped, and didn't - may their beds be of nails. Yes, a brace of opinion-makers bad-mouthed us when mere silence might have brought the APG's hanged men and women a reprieve. It is true, the filth, back then, were active. Yet just as patently, the filth are with us still, a kind of given, for in today's Australia racist swine continue to inhabit very high places, and with them, a bevy of cultural gate-keepers for whom local ingenuity and the home-grown product remains, as it always was, a threat to whatever deformed sense of self-worth these vampires derive from prolonging our nation's colonial or neo-colonial status.

Why I baulk at attributing to a shadowy 'they' the capacity to so completely negate tearaways such as ourselves is what it says about who does and doesn't hold power in our society. Did they, the owners of the culture, our cultural guardians so to speak, have so much power? And did we, the culture makers, have so little? And what of our supporters, our audience, were they powerless to act in this equation? Or had we wronged them once too often and run out of friends?

Perhaps even more to the point, if that 'they' could consign the APG to the rubbish bin of history, what havoc can't they wreak? That I find too chilling a thought to contemplate. That way lies nihilism and the absence of real agency. Can nothing at all be done? Why struggle if the deck truly is that stacked against you? It means too a high degree of political naivety must be added to the APG's sins. How deluded we must have been. Imagine: we supposed a merely cultural initiative such as ours could even up the playing field.

Such, for me, are the problematic contours I encounter revisiting the APG's demise. I sense here information of some value to those who come after. For is not all of history contested, and contestable ground? Is not the capacity to struggle of itself the one existential sign of authentic free-will we have? Society may make the bed we're shown to. But agency, and honour, resides in you deciding how you'll lie in it. Sleep is perhaps the better word, for here I'll try not to lie.

.3.

I've called ours an Australian Playhouse. I have no quarrel with the concept, but insist it be fully, not narrowly understood. For too long a myth that the APG developed as a writers’ theatre has held sway. In essence it's a tale peddled by those who never saw the shows but have read the scripts that lasted. Or if they caught the work, such was their own literary bent they supposed they were privy to 'a renaissance in Australian playwrighting'. The truth is much much larger than that.

This view tends to treat the APG as a stepping stone, an interim cultural development, a necessary stage the Australian theatre had to pass through, as though we framed a transitional program aimed at bringing on a situation whereby Australian scripts would at long last feature in the repertoires state companies put to their subscribers. This is now the case of course, but to see it as our lasting legacy, our contribution to the culture, insults the memory of the APG. It's like supposing we did what we did for the greater glory of Dick and Jeanne Pratt, and the Victorian Arts Centre!

As to that, I fancy the APG would have welcomed the Pratts as patrons, but they would have to have been a little more 'with it' than they today seem. Indeed, they strike me as a mystery, really. A pair of late twentieth century capitalist tycoons, mixing it the world economy by day, wanting to play at Funny Girl and Fiddler On The Roof by night. Perhaps that is their idea of where Australian theatre culture should be at - it was never ours.

I suppose a rueful pleasure is to be had knowing our exertions meant first John Sumner, later Roger Hodgeman, and now Simon Phillips, could and can buff up the Melbourne Theatre Company's pretensions to cultural relevance. So persistently did we knock on the door, admittance to that hallowed hall of fame for some of our writers, performers and directors could no longer be denied. Since I was among them, I can't complain. I got a commission, and one of my seventy plays on at the MTC in Sumner's time. And my long ignored East Timor play was done during Hodgeman's reign.

But far from hoping to enter state companies, they practised then and practise today, precisely the sort of narrow casting the APG dreamt it could supplant. We were the alternative to all that. We raised another flag, sailed a very different ship. For us the theatre was a wild, inclusive, broadband medium, one that ranged high and low. Ours was the era of the open marriage and open we were, theatre sluts who'd sleep with anyone, or rather, try to keep anyone awake. In the age of drugs sex and roll n roll, we gave anything, everything a go, and yes, that included writers, and their scripts.

W for writers is W for David Williamson. The APG played a small and not insignificant role in his career. I only wish he'd played a more significant role in ours. It's also W for John Wood - of Blue Heelers fame - he wrote for the APG. So did Alex Buzo, Stephen Sewell, Steve Spears, Phil Motherwell, Alison Lyssa, Alma de Groen, Jenny Kemp, Jenny Walsh, Helen Garner, Tim Robertson, John Timlin, Danny Keene, Peter Lillee, Michael Byrnes, I think Ray Mooney, certainly Roger Pulvers. There were of course the four house trusties, Oakley, Dickins, Hibberd, Romeril.

Who didn't we do? Robyn Archer and Dorothy Hewett are (for years we were about to produce them) shocking omissions in the honour roll. Louis Nowra another. Dennis Altman was someone else we workshopped and nearly performed. Pre-mardi gras queer theatre would have been one more badge of honour we could have worn.

These, with apologies to any overlooked, were the living but we also - Katharine Susannah Prichard, Louis Esson - had, though sparingly, truck with the dead. In giving Prichard's 1926 play Brumby Innes its first ever production, we struck three simultaneous blows. We showed Australia that great plays had been penned in this country but scandalously ignored. We served notice that in Dennis Miller and Peter Cummins Melbourne had great working class actors who in Australian work could scale the heights. Above all, in that show, we beckoned Ninedethana onto stage, Victoria's first 'modern' Aboriginal theatre group who for some years continued to use our premises. It wasn't the MTC who launched these and untold other literary and socio-cultural initiatives - it was the APG folks, opening its heart brain doors and workshop, and putting precious few of your tax dollars to work in the cultural sphere.

Sticking with writers, if most interest was shown in those with Australian passports, we thought an Australian Playhouse should be a cultural citizen of the world. We extended the welcome mat to Brecht, Fassbinder, Handke, Jean Claude van Itallie, Howard Brenton, David Hare, Henrik Ibsen, Barrie Keeffe, Heathcote Williams, Witcaywitz. The closest we got to Shakespeare was Chekhov (although we did host John Bell in Nimrod's version of Hamlet).*[note: Stasis did Shakespeare- Antony and Cleopatra!] Sam Shepard was our salute to Albee, O'Neill, Miller, and Tennessee Williams. Artaud? We had a workshop in the basement.

When, in 1981, we pulled down the hoardings no lack of writers names had been emblazoned there. It represents a fine literary portfolio, and ours must have been/was, a writer's theatre of note. By it you can measure the worth of others that have come since. Hoopla's an example, dating from 1974 and evolving into Playbox, it has built itself into a house that trades in new Australian writing for the stage. In template fashion we foreshadowed the viability of such a theatre, but the point must be insisted upon. Writing was one string to the bow we wielded.

.4.

There's a problem here. A performance is given, then gone. All the attack a piece of theatre had becomes a memory in someone's mind. Maybe a costume or two survive, if they're not cut up for something else. Bits of a set get recycled, or a property re-used. But mostly what endures are the scripts, and commentators go to them. The temporality of the art form makes an archaeology of the theatre difficult.

In our case the truth is writers had some hard lessons to learn at the APG. The idea of the theatre as a movie, not just a talkie is where we never stopped coming from. The physical, kinetic, visual, emboldened and embodied, phenomenal nature of theatre, theatre as a live flesh and blood as opposed to literary event is what obsessed us. Good spiel had its place in our arsenal, but never to the exclusion of good schtick. The way dots in a score aren't music, so the mystery of acting begins with a body in space, not squiggles on a page.

The body in space is a major clue to the APG's genesis. And to the directions we went in.

.5.

At La Mama, a series of Sunday workshops began in 1967 and proceeded through 1968 into 1969. They led directly to the formation of the APG and the establishment of the Pram Factory as a playhouse. Along the way shows were produced. My ‘Chicago Chicago’, Hibberd's ‘White With Wire Wheels’, Buzo's ‘Norm and Ahmed’, are three good examples, high quality stand-alone play texts tackled between 1968 and 1969. But 'the works' were one thing, 'the work' another. Before shows such as these came showings, of technique.  The loose but large and fervent assembly of individuals who went on to found the APG were conducting a sustained enquiry into the art of acting. Prior to engaging with any writer's script this project, a process not product-oriented affair, was already well in train, and the basis of much that was to come.

In essence we skilled up. If we had a core business at the time, actor-training was it, and three actors, Graeme Blundell, Kerry Dwyer, and Dave Kendall, led the workshops. A film director, Brian Davies, completed our gang of four pedagogues, none of whom had, warranted, or sought the status of a guru, but their ease, one with another, and an aesthetic affinity born during their student days at Melbourne University, allowed them to function as a cabal and sustain 'the training' over an extended developmental period.

In Brian's case the long-term agenda, as I detected it, was to breed in Carlton a community of performers for film purposes. Enamoured of the European new wave cinema his vision splendid was of a kind of low-budget film-making that would capture contemporary inner-city life. He died before becoming Goddard down-under but oddly, in the early films of John Duigan, a later member of the APG, something akin to the Davies dream did see the cinematic light of day. Indeed, it's interesting how the head of performance steam generated by La Mama, the APG, and sundry others, helped the Australian film industry re-invent itself.

More theatrically inclined, in their early 20s, Blundell and Kendall were refugees from the Melbourne Theatre Company. They'd been with the MTC post The Doll, when it had shrunk back to being a little theatre with an intelligentsia following, operating from the Union Theatre at Melbourne University. The mark of George Ogilvie and Wal Cherry, rather than John Sumner, was upon them. Dwyer, besides her own actorly credentials, had, unless I'm making it up, time with Le Coq in Paris on her CV. Certainly she'd met Jerzy Grotowski 'over there'.

These four fine folk were our priests - and to their lessons came the brethren, people like Al Finney, Pete Carmody, Meg Clancy, Kim O'Leary, Bruce Spence, Lindy Davies, Richard Murphet, Carol Porter, Bill Garner, Peter Cummins, Rod Moor, Yvonne Marini, Linzee Smith, Jon Hawkes, Geoff Gardiner. Margot Nash and Robin Laurie were amongst our number, and certainly there were others. As always with us, people came and went as the mood took them.

I was one of the zealots religiously attending the workshops. A poet, I'd attempted a script or two and done some performing as a student, but I date my apprenticeship in the theatre from our Sunday workshops. Simply put, we groped towards a method of acting we felt appropriate to Australian theatrical circumstances.

In time our concern with style bred content, shows that amounted to meditations 'on the Australian experience'. But in the beginning the sole objective was actor development and text, if it featured at all, was neither here nor there. It could be a bit of Esson, Brecht, or even Shakespeare. Equally a story filched from a newspaper or generated by improvisation met our needs. Literary quality, even the idea of narrative itself, was not particularly germane. The actor is at the heart of the theatrical equation, and actors gaining control over the tools of their trade was the order of the day. That meant voice and character work, but above all work on physical skills, the body in space.

By today's illustrious standards our training would be deemed ad hoc, with its learn on the run, do-it-yourself air. Improvisation was a major tool. Its utility lay in the courage and status it built by privileging the inventiveness of the actor. That it also fast-tracked a confrontation with your own histrionic impulses and habits, and those of your fellows, was no bad thing. Basically it underscored the actor's primacy in the theatrical transaction, a perspective that never left us.

Much of what we did by way of acting exercises we drew from magazines and books. We read of and ripped off whatever came our way about Joseph Chaiken and the Open Theatre, the Becks and the Living Theatre, Grotowski and the Actors Laboratory, Richard Schechner at the Performing Garage. We bounced between Artaud and Stanislavski, to Eisenstein Meyerhold Brecht Piscator, and back to Stanislavski. We got the measure of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Theatre of the Ridiculous, Teatro Campesino, Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet company. Stephen Joseph's in-the-round exertions, leading to Peter Cheeseman's work at the Victoria Theatre Stoke-on-Trent, was duly monitored.

The Traverse, the Brighton Portable, Passe Muraille, later still 7:84, the Liverpool Everyman, the Joint Stock Company - be it abroad or at home (Tribe, the Performance Syndicate, Nimrod), we studied the form. This was mail-order aesthetics. Theory came in a Whole Earth catalogue of theatre practice and we consulted it. We stitched in bits of yoga and Alexander technique. Whatever worked for us on our patch we stuck with. Whatever didn't, we discarded.

It happened that intruding into our deliberations were some rather massive ructions in the body politic. Conscription and the war in Vietnam made life, not just art, an edgy affair. We felt compelled to play a part in the anti-war moratorium movement, and outdoor performance became a specialty. It was bold broad, image-based cartoon style work, with an emphasis on attention-grabbing feat and spectacle. We embraced acrobatics, circus, puppetry, mask and mime. Songs, music, noise were a footnote woven into the mix, but sheer physicality, doing not saying, showing not telling, was the main course on the menu.

Things could have gone otherwise, but the large scale nature of this outdoor protest work put a premium on making a kinetic and visual impact, as opposed to vocalisation. We were drawn to the theory and practice of such work and it became a given of sorts. In a related but opposite way, smallness of scale, the architectural intimacy of our home base at La Mama, likewise nipped an elocutionary approach to acting in the bud. La Mama was/is a handkerchief-sized arena. You can touch the audience, and with no back stalls to reach, a big voice seemed ludicrous, while the fruity vowels of the BBC-inflected Anglophile always was, for an Australian actor, an obvious put-on. Thus it was that utterance with us acquired a conversational air, and vocally we operated in an easy, unforced, vernacular way. Almost subliminally, well before 1970, the arms of a beguiling dialectic had begun to wrap themselves around us.

One arm was this verbal style, colloquial in manner and tone. At spoken level a kind of Australian realism characterised our improvisations, and whatever writing we purveyed. But the other arm of this dialectic was rooted in the emphasis the workshops and the outdoor work put on what an athletically primed actor's body could deliver. Even in the cramped confines of La Mama a balletic, occasionally grotesque, physicality evolved, a kind of antipodean formalism. It could be, and often was, as studied, as choreographed as the Italian or French commedia, or Japanese kyogen. And as luminous.

On the one hand then, we conducted a seemingly naturalistic conversation with our audiences. The anarchically driven yak, the grab bag of ideas and jokes, had the colour and rhythm of pub, tram, bed or work-place talk. On the other hand we were kinetic sculptors in space who, in a precise and self-aware manner, tried to ensure every second on stage had pictorial clout, was a visceral, muscular, bio-mechanical event, milked for its iconic, emblematic, archetypal worth as image. We were verbal realists, linguistically-speaking, but physically, formalists to a near gymnastic degree. In the foment and fluster we had somehow squared that circle. If you like, we'd hitched Bellbird to Busby Berkeley, and in the process extruded a form of theatrical attack that was fresh, riveting, and peculiarly Australian.

                                                            .6. 

If memory was my sole witness I'd be less strident in asserting there was something special about our theatrical attack, but hard evidence as to its nature is extant. The SBS documentary about the Pram Factory contains film and video footage of certain of our shows. It's precious little, but it makes the case. A more readily accessible source is Tim Burstall's feature ‘Stork’. This film from the early 70’s is based on a David Williamson play and his strengths are apparent. But it had two key APG actors in lead roles, so it also indicates aspects of the appeal the APG had.

I saw it recently, and on screen, male fashion, three decades later, it is a shock. Eeek, the hair styles, eeek the bell bottoms, O no not - god save us - a safari suit. But the film's time-capsule delights aside, not only does Williamson's script travel well, but the APG-inspired performances of Bruce Spence and Graeme Blundell had a luminosity that made me remember how good we could be.

The other principal males are Helmet Baikaitis and Shaun Meyers. I mean them no ill-will. They deliver credible, low-key subtle, so-called cinematic or television acting. It seems pallid, talking head, acting from the neck up stuff compared to the sinewy attack Blundell and Spence display. It isn't that the latter are over the top, but what comes through is how at home in their bodies they actually are. They own and answer to their limbs, triumphing over them to sculpt the space and create telling visual images rooted in character, driving the tale. In the aspic of celluloid is jellied much of what made the APG's approach to acting so compelling.

Interestingly, in the same flick, Jacki Weaver turns in a good one. Jacki was an actor from the age of six in commercial theatre, working for the Old Tote before establishing herself firmly at Nimrod. Her rounded, grounded performance, is an equally sound indication that the alternative theatre movement of the 1960s-70s had something of note going for it.

So what went wrong - why did the APG cocky fall off the perch?

.7.

On the subject of the APG's rigor mortis, I've only ever managed two noteworthy remarks. One: we died of natural causes by going too long between hits, and show biz takes no prisoners. Two: we became a Jack and Jill of all theatre trades but the master /mistress of none.

The first proposition is beyond dispute. When the hits stop happening, and the misses pile up, you have virtually signed your own death warrant, end of story, suicide by numbers, the lack thereof. But if a lack of hits is a killer, how well you handle your hits when you have them hugely determines a company's success or failure. Here the theatre-economics the APG was locked into were for us a perennial problem.

The maths are straightforward. Carrying capacity in our front theatre was at the illegal best two hundred. In our back theatre it was eighty to a hundred, tops. At capacity a two or three hander in the rear could make its way, but anything grander, or less well attended, ran at a loss. In the front a medium, or even a large cast could, in a hit, recoup wages. But this was only ever milk, no cream. The hard fact is, for most of our operational life, the APG was in a situation where we lost on the swings, but couldn't profit-take on the roundabouts. The old adage, production is nothing, distribution everything, was being burnt into our hides.

A two-hundred seater is a fine thing, provided that many or fewer patrons want to clock your show. It's when the potential audience exceeds that number your troubles begin. How to take advantage of better than anticipated demand?

Solution one is to extend the season. It was sometimes, but far from always possible. It's usually week two or later before you know you have a hit on your hands and in our case, by that time, other shows were always well along the pipeline waiting to come through. The complication went further. With non-ensemble, show to show hiring, chances were our hit performers were in rehearsal for something else of ours, or booked by other managements for other gigs. A year has to be programmed and planned. So do people's lives. Deviations, in the face of good fortune may make dollars and sense but can't always be contemplated.

Solution two for us was to bring back our hits. Repeat the show, preferably in a larger venue, reach more people per night, and cream it that way. When we could do this we did, but at first, in the Melbourne of our day, few transfer spaces existed. Theatre real estate was us and La Mama at the small-scale slum end of town. Then came the big leap forward into the CBD's 800 seaters, or bigger, the Comedy, the Athenaeum, the Tivoli, the Princess. Or the National in then distant and ungroovy St.Kilda. Fine venues for a Barry Humphries or companies with established followings. We were yet to, and never did, reach that league.

The real estate predicament changed somewhat when, five or six years into our life, the Universal came on line, a useful four hundred seater, and we used it when the need arose. But by then our strike rate had tailed off. Fewer hits had made access to a middle of the range playhouse less of a dilemma. At about that time, sensing an even more commodious solution, when the panel beaters below us moved out, we developed that space as a third and larger venue. It proved a rush of blood. The space had pillars galore, sight-line and comfort difficulties that demanded a major fit-out we never had the capital for. It stayed a bear-pit, a rock n roll come cabaret space, a rent-eating problem rather than the revenue-producing solution we'd hoped for.

One strategy we toyed with, and dreamt of instituting, was to hew for ourselves a suburban circuit, akin to the one that existed in Melbourne up to the 1940s. It had withered and been lost to view like (we were to discover) so much else in Australian theatre history. That circuit's theatres had either been pulled down, or become cinemas. We fancied we could teach this Phoenix to fly again, but in reality how much of the wheel (or do I mean weal) could we re-invent? Our sallies into the suburbs were sporadic and ad hoc when it was a game for patient, well-capitalised players, prepared to practice continuity of effort. In each site - and we tried some - there was an audience to build from scratch, and already we had our work cut out doing that in Carlton, let alone Essendon, Preston, Kew, Yarraville or Box Hill.

In this however, as in so much else we dreamers at the APG foreshadowed a kind of theatre that could work, other things being in place. Indeed, we spent much of our life laying down templates, devising prototypes, like some manic research and development department. With regard to tapping the suburbs it was the community theatre movement that coming later put more and better flesh on whatever bones we'd left behind. I think of Theatre Works, and a show like ‘Storming Mont Albert By Tram’. At the APG we kept going over the parapets, by pram.

That leads to the other notion I tease out here for the benefit of any mugs that follow, for in suggesting the APG was a Jack of all theatre trades but master of none, I highlight how an initial strength (our willingness to try anything) devolved into a telling weakness. It led directly to what these days would be termed a branding problem.

In truth quantity of production, of effort, and diversity of product, came easily to us. Quality control and orderly marketing didn't. When we were bad we were as ordinary as anything or anyone going around. When we were good, we could be very very good, and sometimes, we were downright astonishing. Perhaps an inextricable part of the recipe, the novelty of the next show, and the next, became for us a drug. In paying too little attention to extending the shelf-life of what we did, we hastened our use-by date. Co-incidentally, this love for our own diversity, put us on the production treadmill we'd once vowed to avoid - the monthly repertory system. If you like, five or six years in, the Pram Factory had become a restaurant where the menu changed so often, people stop trusting the chef. But for a time the novelty and freshness of that cuisine, the APG smorgasbord, took some beating.

.8.

So we're in (though we don't know it) mid-career. And we look very handily placed. We hold the keys to a not uncharming building. La Mama is round the corner, and the Universal's down the road. In the lane behind us the Why Not Theatre has started up, and the Last Laugh and the Flying Trapeze are in full swing. The area has the vibe of an entertainment precinct and in the Pram we boast three venues plus workshop, administrative, and, storage areas to suit. Even (the Tower) a residential wing. It's the architectural basis for a live theatre multiplex, a mecca that could - couldn't it - equal Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York. But Joseph Papp's world-wide success with Hair underwrote his extraordinary enterprise. What goose laid our golden egg?

Jumpcut. Flashback, to our beginning. It's a nearly story, and effectively the story I'm telling here.

The APG opens the Pram Factory with ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, and in hindsight it could well have been our ‘Hair’. Yet despite popular demand we let it fold after six weeks. Looking back, this is a first taste of the shelf-life problem that will dog us down the years. Of course we learn to extend seasons, and to tour as aggressively as we can. With a key master-work like ‘Dimboola’ we range far and wide and could probably still be playing it somewhere in Australia. It was our magic pudding - we cut it and came again. ‘The Hills Family Show’ is a similar tale. Several seasons. Many ports of call. But ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ is early days. We're novices. We think it's enough to have opened a theatre. We don't know we have a war-chest to build.

With ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ (in our beginning is our end) we also experience what will become a second recurrent hassle. We're not yet professional so the APG is a hobby that suddenly feels for most of us like a second, but unpaid job. Of that original mob, the stayers stayed. Sadly, many highly talented theatrical goers went. A pattern of recruitment and resignation sets in. Since we never do quite make ends meet there is always going to be a changing of the guard. The long march has begun, towards a pile of payroll sheets that suggest a gallant five hundred souls were in the APG's employ in the course of our eleven years. When the old go, so does much of the collective memory. With the new, comes the new, no bad thing, but it tends to raise the bar and make re-inventing the wheel a constant chore.

Something else is involved. No-one is more surprised than we are by a six-week run. Out there in audience-land we've struck a chord. But we don't really know what tune it comes from, do we Mr Jones? And we don't attempt another group devised show for twelve perhaps eighteen months. Yet arguably, that is where the real buried treasure lies.

.9.

Because it bears on my theme of a company that was a Jack and Jill of all theatre trades I'll mention self-management and the APG. It deserves a chapter in any book purporting to be about us. Pramocracy, a position-paper by John Timlin, canters down the straight, but the full course requires a multitude of voices, possibly the witness of all who were APG collective members, plus any hired hand of the company who had the good, or bad fortune, to attend a Pram Factory meeting.

Self-management was, but wasn't just, theory. We didn't start with a blue-print, the theory grew from daily practice. The APG's began in a state of autocracy and anarchy, but as the group got bigger, and its scale of operations more complex, the short-comings of that organisational mode became apparent. What's OK for a garage rock’n roll band proved a communications nightmare for a collective that at one point boasted sixty active members, and seldom less than thirty-five.

Not without doubts (from the anarchists), rancour and defections (from the autocrats), we moved to apply first-order democratic principles to the business we ran. Ours became a rank and file controlled workplace. Management was from the bottom up, not the top down, and we developed a transparent and accountable committee structure. It was an organic dynamic affair, built by trial and error, adjusted to better implement the company's far from static aims and objectives, and refined to accommodate the people on hand. Perhaps, to employ Bill Garner's paraphrase of Stalin, it was our go at 'socialism in one room', but the essential features of what we put in place are to be found in many 'not for profit' organisations, in how amateur, and some professional sporting bodies organise, in the links schools forge between parents teachers and (increasingly) students, and so on.

For example, we had certain full-time staff, including a general manager cum administrator much like any so-called real-world administrator cum general manager. In our case that person's work was done in concert with, and overseen by, a finance and business committee. Re programming, this the membership decided as a whole - but a programming committee actioned it. Committees took responsibility for plant purchases and the structural state of the building; for publicity; for front of house and cleaning, dot dot dot.

It wasn't, but had our company been a training institution, there would have been none better, for in the course of time, whether you were primarily an actor a writer a designer a carpenter a lighting technician a director an accountant or a publicist, you rotated through our structure, developing as you went a practical hands on grasp of the hundred and one facets of running a theatre. We didn't own the building, but the company was 'ours' with members taking 'overall' responsibility for its fate, not in some abstract sense, but via direct involvement now in this, now in that, concrete operational aspect. Your own occupational blinkers, the agenda your specialism generated, was infused by a broader sense of the common, corporate good. 'You' had joined an 'us', were welded to a 'we', and you knew it.

Radicalism lay only in applying such a structure to the theatre. If, and they did, certain industry outsiders found the arrangements entered into at Drummond St strange, that says little about how left-wing we were and much about how undemocratic and right-wing the theatre in Australia actually is. Some procedures were soft, and smacked of hippiedom. If you'd had plenty of work, and someone else hadn't, we might try to even up the score. Not surprisingly, factoring social justice and equity issues into casting decisions, not just your suitability for a role, can prove detrimental to the final product's quality. But bad casting is always a hassle, and neither a command-obey nor a bottom up decision-making structure provides a guarantee against it. For us casting was also used to combat the emergence of a star syndrome. This did disadvantage real talent, and did give mediocrity a break. What do you do, let big heads and giant egos go unpunctured and well salaried, while lesser talents starve? Or is life sometimes a choice between evils?

On one memorable occasion we forced on a director a cast we'd voted for by secret ballot. Such departures from usual theatre practice and traditional prerogatives, however much they surprise industry insiders, underline the flexible and experimental nature of the APG. At the level of work-place culture, our new theatre really was new.

The inner workings, which patrons and outsiders were seldom party to, had a productivity upside. The pay-off was we bred a situation in which people felt cared for and morale was usually high. Because we looked after our own, the leap to 'owning', to identifying with the work, also occurred. A spirit of, shall we call it love, or just unalienated labour, was lavished on what we did. And this, process reflected in product, audiences did sight. To the extent Aristotle got it right in supposing we are social animals and human behaviour is characterised by co-operation as much as by competition, the system functioned well. It failed to the extent Hobbes nailed it in arguing life was a case of the one against the many and self-interest lay behind every human act.

Basically what kept excesses of the altruistic impulse in check was money, which was always tight, and the commercial imperatives of the marketplace. We may have tried to function as a socialist island where all artists were equal. We were located in a capitalist sea and audiences expected value for the dollar. Fail to deliver that and their loyalty waned. Money, needless to say, is a delicate issue in the life of any theatre company. It pays to handle it well. We tried our best in a trying environment. With more members than we had jobs trough-time was inevitably fraught - people's livings were at stake. And always more laudable projects than we could finance were jockeying for a place in the starting stalls. Budgetary and programming sessions usually saw APG blood on the APG tiles.

What's to say? In such matters only fools pine for perfection. The tyranny of the majority is a fearsome thing, and the collective could be (always in the name of the corporate good) as hard-nosed as any theatre manager or artistic director. The difference between our model and a more authoritarian decision-making style was whilst a decision might go against you, or your pet project be canned, at least at the APG there were forums in which you had the chance to put your case. Your fate wasn't secretly determined from on high, or behind closed doors. Democracy's flaw is the floor tends to be held by those who have 'the words' so of course our forums enfranchised the quick-witted rhetoriticians, the eloquent, as opposed to the verbally inept. Our system too was cumbersome, time-consuming, less honest than we proclaimed, and more corrupt than you might have imagined. But again, what's to say, except it beat fascism hands up.

In my life since those days as a lone hand, in my freelance adventures across twenty years in thirty going on forty other theatre companies, I sorely miss what the APG's system of self-management gave me. It was first a sense of a 'we' greater than the self, an 'us' that I patently, plainly wrote for, and with that came a level of commitment and connection I've never felt again. Second, it introduced into my daily life a measure of drama, vying viewpoints, contention, spirited debate. A no bad thing for a dramatist, and, I suggest, valuable subtext for any theatre company trying to foist 'the drama' on the general public.

Sexism is a good example of how our system could effectively introduce change. The women in the APG collective bravely used our meetings to argue that the patriarchal bias of the society at large flowed through into our practice and had to be combated. We legislated for equality of employment opportunity, and policed it. In the course of a year as many jobs would go to women as went to men. We further used our commissioning procedures to a) attract and employ women playwrights, but also b) to insist the quality and incidence of female characters in the work male writers tendered was up to scratch. If the story's about a cop - why not a female cop, and a fully rounded one, etc.

The artz-politics of all this are not inconsequential. Frankly I tire of commentators, even figures as eminent as Barrie Kosky, who parrot the so-called fundamental fact that great theatre companies are always led by 'somebody', usually a great Artistic Director. We had no Artistic Director, and were nearly a great theatre company. What such pundits never advert to is the obvious fact that for every great theatre company in the world there are ten twenty fifty a hundred publicly funded theatres, led by mediocre tin-gods who don't warrant the command structure put at their disposal, and whose artistic nous, not to mention their social and personal morality, make life dreary for those they employ and play to.

The APG ran an experiment that faltered. As a model it deserves closer inspection than it gets. And wider replication. Moreover, those same commentators would do well to examine the often extremely enlightened, artistically vibrant role worker-control has played in eg. the Comedie Francaise, and some of the world's 'great' orchestras. We're in the culture- making business, my friends, and great cultures aren't built from the top down.

.10.

Bantams, Australorps, Muscovy ducks, Khaki Campbells, Rhode Island Reds, if the APG was a parliament of fowls we were an assortment of breeds. Democracy, by its nature, is miscegenous, permitting, even privileging diversity. In our case it's hard to discern if pre-existing aesthetic differences made our date with democracy inevitable (the only club that would have us) - or whether the dalliance itself promoted and entrenched the diversity that became our trademark. Either way, and still this theme of us attempting many forms of theatre but specialising in none, the paradox of self-management at the APG is there was no self to manage in any unified sense. No house style, no party line. What we termed self-management was finally the management of cells.

To the world we presented as a single company, albeit it a 'collective', or, if people scratched their heads, a co-operative. In reality we held aloft an umbrella under which a number of sub-groups, sects, factions, tendencies found shelter and support. We grew a garden in which a hundred flowers bloomed.

The image of growth is on the money. We didn't spring into the world fully formed - we evolved - and the trick of evolution never stopped pleasing us. The membership shifted and splintered, came and went, swelled and contracted, always a loose, sometimes saggy, coalition of interest groups, one lobbying for this, another for that, line of aesthetic advance.

While Bob and Joe, Thorneycroft and Bolza, combined mime and dance in a series of shows, the Great Stumble Forward, outdoors and in, were drawn to acrobatics, circus, physical feats. Long-time aficionados of the art form, Tony Taylor and Jude Kuring fought to insinuate puppetry into the mix. Max Gillies was fond of magic. Evelyn Krape loved a song. In fact music at the APG was always in the air.

From the High Rise Bombers and later Sports there was a figure like Martin Arminger. Headed for Skyhooks and finally New Faces along came Red Symons. Something of a drummer, Greig Pickhaver paid his APG dues and these days scrubs up well as H.G. Nelson. A much better drummer, Eddie van Rosendael was with us for a time, then humped his swag with the Bushwackers. Graeme Isaacs also hit the road, for Adelaide, there to tutor the Aboriginal musos who formed Warumpi and Coloured Stone. As for serious composers - what my father in the Palais band was wont to call 'long hairs' - they came in the form of Martin Friedel and George Dreyfus. In the middle hovered a tunesmith like Lorraine Milne. Musicals - we produced over thirty of the bastards, some from the bush, others from the town.

Name your poison, we concocted it, is the narrative. Tragedy, comedy, history, cabaret, mime, vaudeville, puppetry, magic, circus, the revue, the melodrama, the monodrama, the pantomime, fully authored plays, group devised pieces, dance dramas, odd operas - the set of genres we didn't dabble in is infinitesimal, while the set of those we had truck with wouldn't fit on a truck.

If the Great Stumble Forward, after the addition of the Captain Matchbox Band, stumbled forward to become first the Soapbox Circus, and finally the more sure-footed Circus Oz, our ranks boasted other sub-groups of a much less populist hue. Stasis for instance, pursued an austere classical theatre of deep image. Sue Ingleton (in non-populist mode) Jenny Kemp, Rob Meldrum, and Roz de Winter were the prime vectors there, the theatre-training imprint of James McCaughey and Rex Cramphorn was upon them. Nightshift angled in, and out, hard-bitten, street-smart, after-dark urban cowboys and cowgirls led by Lindzee Smith, yoking Phil Motherwell to Sam Shepard to Heathcote Williams and the young Danny Keene. Jumping up and down on the patriarchy’s nerve endings was the Women's Theatre Group, Helen Garner, Jenny Walsh et al making theatrically manifest the social critique second-wave feminism put to the world. For the factory tours the APG conducted under the auspices of the AMWSU I penned, and we made, hasty agit-prop pieces, circa Moscow 1926. Shedding the garments of Living Newspaper technique, many of the same players donned the book-based dreamcoat of Tim Robertson's ‘Tristram Shandy’, or’ Mary Shelley And The Monsters’. Ours was a palette of many colours, a stew of tendencies. Black casts, wog casts, all women casts. Wondrous alchemies, strange amalgams, odd bedfellows.

As for outside hirers, we gave shelter in the storm to bent groups like Mechanics In A relaxed Manner, glitter rock loonies like the Globos, noble mobs like the Bush Music Society and the New Theatre, born in the 1930s, still soldiering on. In our short eleven years the work we produced or played host to spanned an artistic and sociological spectrum such that were we bridge builders, we'd have had the Westgate up and running.

The genre count, and the number of groups we hosted within and without our ranks, says much about how much we attempted between curtain up (1970) and curtain down (1981). But an equally potent marker of how wide-ranging our practice was lies in the catholic way we treated space. Here a genius designer like Peter Corrigan came into his own. A figure I unreservedly slot into the genius category, his fierce intelligence on matters spatial percolated, in lesser form, throughout the company.

We used real and mock proscenium openings, thrust, arena, traverse, and in-the-round settings. We broke the fourth wall. We re-erected it. With Brecht's The Mother, we pioneered a form of promenade (though we termed it bivouac) theatre. Toting folding canvas stools, or simply standing if that was their preference, the audience ranged through the space, attending this scene here and that scene there. For some shows, anticipating the Last Laugh and the Flying Trapeze, it was tables and chairs, food and booze for sale. For others banks of seating.

We caged the audience, perched the audience, caged and perched ourselves. Flat floors, raked floors, earth concrete wood, bitumen and rubble. Protest or guerrilla theatre at rallies, meetings, demonstrations. Lunch-hour theatre. Factory theatre. Theatre in schools and on campuses. Community residencies transferring skills and theatre technology. The Front Theatre. The Back Theatre. The Panel Beaters. Benefits and fundraisers. Outdoor work in car parks, parks and gardens, shopping malls, streets, alleys, waste ground, on the beach. Indoor work in non-theatre spaces, in cafes, wedding reception centres, tents, airport lounges, railway stations. In eleven manic years we laid down template after template, pioneered mode after mode.

If someone like Alan Robertson (god's theatre hymn to steel and aluminium), or fabulously gifted prop and costume-makers like Laurel Frank and John Koenig, often wondered what show they were on - so audiences often wondered what show they were at. We did have a branding problem; we constantly encountered marketing dilemmas; and yes, novelty often prevailed over quality, so the bottom-line result is a patchy record of credible, and sometimes incredible hits, shadowed by a string of misses. But hit or miss it remains a miracle, a seldom matched feat of theatrical productivity, characterised overall by a helter skelter pluralism.

At the same time, as though we were asking the question: can the many yet be one - something singular did define the APG's attack. It was like we groped for some meta- or underlying 'answer' to the problem of how good theatre is to be made. In any, I'd say every show, we advanced on the audience's sensorium with both the claw of formalism and the claw of realism sawing the air. In the jaws of a dialectic, one way realism the other way formalism, we strove to give paradoxical birth to a beast of the theatre that unified these opposites, a matrix that could somehow contain the potence of both.

Can the many yet be one? It is a confusing question, almost a contradiction in terms. It was, I venture to suggest, a theatrical variant of a conundrum that wracked the nation's collective psyche at that time, and probably plagues our society still.

                                                            .11.

I'm persuaded the theatre, world wide, boasts peaks and troughs with occasional decades (rarely longer) when the drama in a certain place is astonishing. London's battle of the theatres in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period is a western example. In the east, the rise of the puppet theatre in Chikamatsu's Osaka is another. In Moliere's Paris the Comedie Francaise emerges; Chekhov's Moscow plays home not just to Stanislavski but also Meyerhold; Berlin in the 20s sees Piscator Brecht Weill Eisler working with performers like Peter Lorre and Lottie Lenya, then comes Arturo Ui and the Nazi ascendency. Fabulous fragile flowerings, brief golden ages.

As I read such blips on the theatre's often very low-grade radar they are characterised by the convergence of three critical pre-conditions. 1) Great acting, from a highly skilled community of performers who embrace 2) great writing, or sometimes great direction design dramaturgy or theatre management. But actors, writers, directors et al, are arguably potentially good whatever the era. What therefore must be in place if the good are to produce a shimmering incandescent brilliance? All watershed moments in the history of the theatre are in fact underpinned by 3) the presence of a great audience.

It can be a mass audience. Italian opera has it in the nineteenth century when the passion and scale of the art form manages to ride the tiger of Italian nationalism. It seems certain something similar is afoot with German opera. Does not Mozart, despite his own poverty, reflect the Austro-Hungarian Empire's salad days? Again, the personal returns are scant, but isn't Wagner helping inspire, and being inspired by, the quest for German unification?

In like fashion, you can't account for the rise of the American musical without reference to social factors, even to a quasi-mystical notion such as the mass sensibility of the age. Basically the American musical's popularity represents a giant anomaly. As a form of music-drama, in terms of long runs, box office records, big budgets and so on, all this happens to it as an art form in the 1950s, after the cinema, after television, at precisely the moment when elsewhere on the globe the popular theatre is down for the count.

I think it's specious to contend classics of the genre like Oklahoma, The Pyjama Game, or South Pacific, simply continue the nineteenth century's light or comic opera tradition. To see Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the rest, as taking up the quill where Gilbert and Sullivan, or Offenbach left it, fails to pay a new form for a new century its due. In fact a virus starts in the rag-time era, an urban tinkle that multiplies with the emergence of varsity style white jazz in the 20s, spreads into the big band sound of the 30s and 40s when Dorsey, Ellington, Miller & Co are kings. Its transmission is technologically aided and abetted by inventions such as the radio and the phonograph, whilst social dancing, the institution of vast dance halls, becomes a vector that ensures contact until almost nobody's body is immune. A new musical vocabulary and grammar, an aurally based piece of popular culture, has wormed its way into the sensibility of the mass.

Finally, and it happens later, rather than sooner, this virus crosses over into the theatre. It does so, by and large post world war two, when a generation of composer story-tellers suddenly divine how to locate the three minute dance tune or the sentimental standard inside the architecture of a music drama. And in droves modern, urban post-world war two Americans attend the theatres and applaud this final step. A form of the drama has been devised that echoes their sense of economic and military might. That a path has already been viscerally cleared for it is in hindsight apparent. Its roots are in tin-pan alley, which is unthinkable without alleys, streets, cities. Its percussive drive is the song of the railways and the motorcar. And the choreography of a Busby Berkeley is what - the division of labour on the factory floor turned into art?

At any rate, that's my story and I'm sticking to it, but what I'm arguing here, beyond the factual nitty gritty of a particular case, is the ecological role audiences play in the theatre's fate. It can be, as it was for the American musical, a broad mass audience that put that form of theatre through the roof. Or its numbers can be small. The early years of the Abbey (Yeats Synge and Lady Gregory) are an example of the latter kind of audience at work. A thwarted pent-up cultural nationalism coursed in the Irish intelligentsia's veins and vampire-like, akin to leeches, the actors and writers gathered to gorge themselves on this artery that wound through the body politic.

I fancy Ibsen and Strindberg lucked (co-incided with) in their Sweden, their Norway, a similar audience, a strata of society who went to the theatre wanting to orient themselves, get abreast of the issues of the day, attune their thinking to the moment. There are such times when, simply put, the theatre rings bells with 'the folk', the folk being either a mass audience or an elite coterie of theatre-goers (eg. the Noh), but either way their impact on the theatre's fate is seismically profound. When an audience emerges with a pronounced lust for what the theatre can deliver, the art form hits new highs, sets new standards. Those sadly rare circumstances are marked by a kind of intellectual and emotional hysteria. It's when performers acquire the allure of stars, and writers, who might otherwise toil at novels or poetry, start giving birth to plays. The theatre is suddenly a sexy trade, a fashionable medium.

I fancy we at the APG had the great good fortune to experience one such moment in the theatre's millennial-long march. What historians and sociologists are wont to call the Whitlam years threw a great audience the APG's way. And we tried to match its greatness with whatever performative and literary genius we could muster. Inevitably the momentum atrophied. But the ride while it lasted was something else. Somehow the home-ground advantage lay with us as players, and the spectators willed us to win.

.13.

That's what I'd argue, that an accident of birth meant the APG came on-line in a clump of years when we Austral sleepers awoke. Examine certain features of those times. In 1965 Australia starts to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam. Slowly, but with increasing uneasiness we wake (not for the first time either) to the region we are in. In 1967  the Aboriginal people achieve at a referendum citizenship in their own land, and the rest of us wake to the shocking scandalous irony of that. In 1972 Whitlam is elected. We wake to a backlog of overdue socio-economic reform that close to three decades of conservative rule has wilfully postponed and ignored. There seems so much to do, so many wrongs to right, a plethora of missed opportunities to grasp. For a minute there energy and hopes are high, and the world seems wide.

But then three federal elections get fought across three years, and in 1975 the country reels away from a constitutional crisis that solves nothing, merely scars the body politic. Can the many yet be one? Seemingly not. A slim margin, a majority of Austral sleepers want to go back to sleep, but as we now know,  someone or something has murdered sleep, for in the decades since our beds have simply kept burning.

Could there have been a better, a more exciting time in which to found an Australian Playhouse? The social energy, the zeal, the hope and struggle of that period in the late 60s early 70s explains much about the APG's rise. The Australia we stumbled into as young men and women seemed to us a theatrically undeveloped country. The competition was what - the MTC? A pallid, brown, safe, and utterly un-Australian affair. It spoke to you not, nor did you speak to it. You looked past it, back to the nineteenth century melodramas, to the vaudeville of Roy Rene’s ‘Mo’, the popular theatre of Bert Bailey, the New Theatre in the 30s, Peter Finch and the tearaways of the 50s. Lawler and Humphries carried torch enough to allow you to dust down and read Prichard and Esson.

Or you looked forward. To a theatre that wasn't in a theatre. A theatre that told mad new tales for a mad new Australia, one that was clearly in the making, and so in your bones you had to dance, you had to have truck with the circus, you had to rock’n roll, hack and hew a new physicality into place, find a voice whose absence from the scene appalled and riled you. And then, when that voice found your lips it was the kiss of a siren. How are you feeling? asks the doctor - Not too jazzy, replies the Bride of Gospel Place. Or in an early Hibberd play: You drink too much, says the girlfriend. Yeah, I'm a real alky, smirks the young man, whose marble's just been drawn for Vietnam.

Suddenly Australian reality seemed so real you had to record it, drag it on stage. With all stops out we simply sought to make meaning for ourselves because we felt so few around us were making sense. Hearing this great task was being tackled, a crowd gathered. And that was our rise.

Equally, does not our fall in some way mirror the unravelling of that energy and optimism? The charge of the filth brigade back to the past, the counterpunch launched by the conservatives at the time is (although a doomed project) with us still. For us at the APG it felt like the wave we'd been riding had turned into a dumper. We came up spitting saltwater and sand, and standing before the Pram Factory in 1981, as the auctioneer brought down his hammer, I could barely manage to snarl "thanks old girl, for the memories". He who wears his heart on his sleeve, soon ends with a bloodied shirt.

.14.

A single pebble, in falling, brings on the avalanche. One grain of sand shifts and the course of a mighty river alters. But which pebble - which grain of sand? Knowing that in advance would make us masters of the universe, or at least of our own fate. The prospect of such knowledge animates our intellectual being as surely as its lack frustrates and dismays us, generation after generation.

How cursed we seem. It's like the species in Adam's day ate of the tree of knowledge but never quite finished the apple. It's like the murmur of our hearts contain an eons-old reverberation of the original big-bang predisposing us to plumb the conundrum of our own and the world's existence, while evolution, hard-wiring our cerebral cortex for curiosity, gives us the words and concepts to frame the big questions, but delivers insufficient circuitry to devise truly satisfying answers.

Endlessly we endure effect. And always smelling cause, we live, sensing ourselves enveloped by a kind of determinism. Yet its precise nature seems to dance just beyond the edge of our consciousness. A glitter in the desert, a gleam in the dark. One tilt of the head, and it's gone. An actual sliver of light, or a trick of the mind? Was it there, or were we?

Humanity has a forensic imagination such that we once supposed ghosts and gods ruled human affairs. Now, as dusk falls on the twentieth century, stranger stars appear in our sky. Particle physics, the genetic code, chaos theory, fractal science. Like ants we cluster round each new body of knowledge but every pattern of causation hints at a perpetually missing link.

Even at this distance I have difficulty defining with any precision why the Australian Performing Group rose, or sank. All that's certain is how much I miss the level of theatrical attack we displayed. It was rare then - and seems even rarer to me today. All I know is I grieve for its loss.

My grief is of course of the couldabeen variety, a form of regret that twists into remorse for the passing of all good things, but shades also into guilt for mistakes made and paths not taken. Did I, did we, do our best and was it simply that our best wasn't good enough? We know how the history played out, but transported back there to play it again Samantha, could I behave differently, would we, would our audience, those times, that society, produce an alternative history, concoct a better and more lasting result?

That's the rub, the something which can never be known, the ache twenty years has done nothing to assuage.

From that time, I think of one of our heroes, John Timlin. He, like me, and a handful of others, saw both the APG's beginning and its end, and walked the plank between the two. He founded an agency, the Almost Managing Company, earning from Alma De Groen the rubric of Mr Nearly Always. I feel myself to have been part of a Nearly Made It theatre company.

And I think of Fay Mokotow, and wish she was journeying with us still.

 

Biography

John Romeril writes on….and on….




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